by Chellis Hall, Guest Writer
Our Voices features guest bloggers in their own words sounding off on disability issues in Arizona.
Chellis Hall is finishing up a Masters of Social Work degree at Arizona State University. He is a Self Advocate who is passionate about trauma informed care and emergency preparedness especially when relating to individuals with disabilities.
Having my voice heard by legislators matters to me, but like most, I cannot be at the state capitol every day to advocate for my rights or express my position on bills that impact my life. I didn’t know there was a way to be involved remotely, until I discovered Arizona’s best kept secret to the democratic process - the Request to Speak (RTS) system. RTS is a website that allows the public to register a written opinion on bills and to request to speak on bills in committee. RTS gives the public a chance to be heard, which is especially important in times where the legislative process has not been all that transparent. However, our lawmakers have supported procedures that creates obstacles to participate in RTS. For example, you can create an RTS account from home, but it cannot be used until you have logged on in person at a kiosk at the state capitol or at a location in Tucson. The problem with activating RTS in person is I have a disability, I use public transportation, and I have difficulty traveling anywhere. I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals across Arizona just like me who would like to express their opinions to our policymakers, but they cannot travel to the state capitol.
To understand the complexity of the RTS process and other barriers the public might face, I tried to register my own account with no information given for how to do so. I gathered information online about how to activate an RTS account. First, I located the kiosks where I can activate my RTS account. The kiosks are located outside the legislative committee rooms on the first floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate buildings at 1700 West Washington, Phoenix. There is also a kiosk located in downtown Tucson at 400 West Congress Street #201. Then, I read the RTS public manual, which is available on the Legislature’s website HERE and looked for a phone number to call and ask questions, but there was none listed. So, I searched online and found a phone number for the House and Senate information desks. I called twice to find out how long the process would take so I could schedule my rides. When I called the House, after talking to two individuals, I was finally referred to a third person familiar with the RTS system. They told me the process of activating an RTS account would take about 5 minutes. The next day I called the Senate phone number with more questions, but was given different information than what I had received the previous day. They told me activating the account would take about 15 minutes, I did not have to be a registered voter, and I did not need to bring identification.
After arriving at the state capitol via paratransit, I learned that the public was not allowed to enter the Senate building. On the other hand, the House was open, but security was tight, as they went through my backpack and looked around my wheelchair. There was no signage to let me know where to go to activate my RTS account, so I asked the security officer who inspected my wheelchair. He directed me to a staff member working at a service desk in the lobby, who then directed me to the computer kiosk. I activated my RTS account, which took less than two minutes.
After activating my RTS account at the kiosk in the House building, I went back to the Senate to see their kiosk for RTS. The Senate’s kiosk appeared completely different with a different color and format. It also gave me the option to provide my driver’s license number, asked if I was a registered voter or a lobbyist, and asked for my voter ID number – all of which I was told I did not need to bring with me.
When I asked why it was necessary to activate the account in person, the Senate worker said, “There are policymakers in the Senate who believe fraudulent accounts would be created and they want to keep that from happening.” Yet, the State of Arizona does allow people to be proxies and go to the state capitol and register RTS accounts in the names of other people, presumably at their request. Whatever concerns policymakers may have about fraud, they are doing nothing to prevent it when they allow proxies to establish and activate these RTS accounts. They could implement strict security measures if they established a system to allow for remote activation of accounts. For example, they could require a voter ID number, identification number, or a driver’s license number if they are truly worried about fraudulent accounts being created remotely. When I can go online and easily transfer money to another bank account – a highly secure transaction – I should be able to go online and activate my RTS account.
In an article posted on the Forbes website, Sarah Kim (2019) states, “In the most literal sense, many folks who use wheelchairs face inaccessibility of campaign and voting venues. They are denied the fundamental right to access physical space” (para. 8). The article also states “62.7 million eligible voters were expected to either have a disability or had a family member with one. This means that more than 25% of the total electorate has an intimate connection to disability” (para. 6). These statistics show how important it is to respect and acknowledge that everyone has different abilities and needs to allow them to fully participate in the democratic process. Not everyone has access to transportation to Tucson or Phoenix or trusts another person with their contact information.
Every registered voter in Arizona should have the same ability to participate in the legislative process, yet we know that the activation process of the RTS system gives an advantage to people who are able-bodied and live near the kiosks in Tucson and Phoenix. The directions for how to use it and activate it are not clear and consistent either. The State of Arizona needs to change the messaging and the process on how people activate their RTS accounts. There is a clear and immediate need to create policy change, especially in light of the current pandemic.
All voices and opinions matter, and they should not be silenced by an archaic system. Having my voice heard is important to me, I want to be heard by the lawmakers in Arizona.
We need people to call their state legislators and tell them to allow remote activation of RTS accounts and ensure there is consistent messaging from our legislature on how to access the RTS system. Together we can make a difference to remove barriers so that everyone to have a voice.
Call the state Senate at (602) 926 – 3559 and the House at (602) 926 – 4221 or click HERE to locate and call your local representatives. Thank You!